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TV stations' stalled season

The Baltimore Sun

With their revenues down and the reservoir of prime-time programming drying up, Baltimore's traditional big three network affiliates face a new year laced with doubt -- and the looming specter of a new season of American Idol.

Last year ended on a down note: Estimated fourth-quarter ad rates dropped 6 percent overall, and total revenue was down 5.7 percent. While Fox stations, such as WBFF 45, can take comfort in the Jan. 15 return of ratings behemoth American Idol, there's little joy elsewhere on the TV dial. The Hollywood writers' strike is putting most established dramatic and comedy series on hold, while a collection of second-string shows replace them.

The stakes are high. A weakened schedule doesn't just affect prime-time ratings and revenue. It could also lead to smaller audiences for the local late news, which is almost always the most-watched -- and thus most profitable -- locally produced program on affiliate stations.

Station management remains determinedly optimistic, though.

"At this point in time, I would say [the strike] has had no impact on our ratings or our revenue," says WJZ, Channel 13 Vice President and General Manager Jay Newman. But, "Ninety days from now, I don't know."

So far, the most newsworthy effect the strike has had was forcing late-night programming into reruns for two months. All the late-night hosts -- from David Letterman to Jimmy Kimmel -- returned to the air last week with new shows.

But this month's midseason lineups are heavy with reality and game shows (see Hulk Hogan in a new version of American Gladiators), plus reruns and second-tier series that might not have made it to prime time under normal circumstances. And then there's Idol, which trounced the competition last year and should really clean up against weakened programming.

Even the most optimistic station executives acknowledge the likelihood that fewer viewers will tune in. And smaller audiences could not only lead to reduced ad rates, but could prompt some advertisers to take their business elsewhere.

"We have to have some kind of strategy," says Jane Goldstrom, executive vice president and media director for MGH Inc., a Baltimore-based advertising agency, noting that she is advising clients to expect a 20-percent to 30-percent drop in viewership for the networks' prime-time offerings -- with a similar drop in numbers for the late-night news. "We can see where some shows are falling off."

Goldstrom said local stations mostly have been willing to reduce the audiences they guarantee to advertisers -- along with corresponding commercial rates. According to the SQAD Data research firm, the cost of local prime-time advertising aimed at audiences ages 25-54 dropped more than 6 percent since the last quarter of 2006 -- from $507 for every 11,000 viewing households to $470.

"Usually, there's like a 5- to-6-percent increase," Goldstrom says.

Figures from The Hungerford Report, an audited report of broadcast advertising revenue, show total broadcast revenue in the Baltimore market, excluding political advertising, down 5.7 percent for the first nine months of 2007, compared with the same period in 2006.

Still, local TV executives insist they are not pushing any panic buttons. The downturn in revenue is cyclical, mostly due to the overall economic slump, they say. And while their new-year line-ups might be filled with less-than-spectacular fare, including shows past their prime (NBC's ER) or ones that were marginal successes to begin with (CBS' Jericho), they're projecting confidence that new programming of any kind will be enough to see them through to the end of the strike ... provided the strike doesn't extend much beyond the first quarter.

NBC, for example, has brought that oldest of network war-horses, Law & Order, back for an 18th season; also new -- at least to NBC viewers -- will be episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent that have been airing since October on the USA cable network. The Peacock Network's slate of reality programs includes a new season of The Biggest Loser and another round of Donald Trump browbeating potential new employees -- such as Kiss' Gene Simmons -- on The Celebrity Apprentice.

That may seem a long way from "must-see TV," but the network affiliates at least sound happy.

"I am very pleased with what their plan is right now," WBAL President and General Manager Jordan Wertlieb says of his network's offerings. "I have to defer to their judgment, and they are basically telling me they are in a very good position through the first quarter."

Among the bigger guns CBS will be counting on are new runs of the reality shows Big Brother (Feb. 12) and Survivor (Feb. 7). Also returning: the Drew Carey-hosted game show Power of 10 and a third season of the ratings-challenged Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom, The New Adventures of Old Christine (Feb. 4).

ABC is offering such new programs as a reality show featuring the Most Powerful Woman on Television, Oprah Winfrey's The Big Give (March 2), and a Dancing with the Stars spin-off, Dance Wars: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann (tomorrow). The network will also bring back Lost for a fourth season (Jan. 31), even though only eight of the planned 16 new episodes have been completed.

At WMAR, the chronic third-place finisher among Baltimore's network affiliates, officials see the vagaries of programming caused by the strike as an opportunity. With so many network dramas and comedies going on hiatus, maybe audiences will sample shows on WMAR that they had never tried previously.

"You may have some channel surfers out there who may be interested in seeing some new programming," says News Director David Silverstein. "We're going to make sure that we have a chance to promote ourselves."

Of all the networks, Fox is best-positioned to weather a prolonged writers' strike. Its all-animated Sunday-night line-up (The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy and American Dad) is not affected by the strike, says WBFF General Manager William Fanshawe. Likewise, its existing Thursday and Saturday night programs are not covered by the writers' guild contract.

And beginning Jan. 15, Fox has ratings super-heavyweight American Idol coming back for another season. Under any circumstances, Idol tends to trounce the competition -- and provide a super-sized audience for WBFF's 10 o'clock news.

In February 2007, for instance, average ratings for the news jumped 63.3 percent when Idol aired, at times making Fox's 10 p.m. broadcast the most-watched late-night news program on local TV. Going up against a mixture of new reality and game shows and series reruns, Idol's ratings should do nothing but climb.

Add to that the college bowl games, football playoff games and the Super Bowl, all slated to air on Fox, and the folks at WBFF believe they're sitting pretty.

"We're in a great situation," says Fanshawe. "Due to the strike, we expect that lead [for Idol] to even widen."

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